Maui might be the domain of the majority of Hawaii’s visitors, but there are still backroads to be explored. Namely, Kahekili Highway, which, by the way, is not a highway by any stretch of the imagination. More like a strip of one-lane paved road framed by rock on one side and sheer cliff drops on the other.
If you are like me, this 20-mile road from Kapalua to Wailuku is a white-knuckle journey that promises to inspire poetry at the stupendous beauty around every heart-pounding curve. I cannot recommend you to brave this road if you like driving fast, or if it has been raining. The slower you go, the more you’ll find to adore. Most sections require you to slow to a meager 5 miles an hour to make those blind curves and if you happen upon another car, one of you, most likely you, will be taking this road in reverse until you come upon a turn out. It’s treacherous, and terrifying, and worth every second of the two hours.
Furthermore, when you get out of the car to explore the various sights along the road, be very careful as many roads open out to a cliff with a deathly drop below. The drive is most picturesque and safe from Kapalua to Wailuku. Remember as you turn those blind corners to honk your horn to communicate to oncoming traffic that you are on the way.
Here are some interesting sights along the way:
At mile marker 34 is Punalau Beach, not recommended for swimming, but the tree-lined sandy shore is a nice place for some peace and quiet. Farther along at mile marker 38 Nakalele Point is home to light station, arches, a rocky coastline, and Nakalele Blowhole. There’s a labyrinth on the cliff and views of the passing whales are tough to top.
Around mile marker 42, the markers switch and it becomes mile marker 16—don’t ask why, just go with it. Just before mile marker 16 are the ocean baths, which you may hear brave folks talking about bathing in as the rough surf pounds the lava rock all around. While a great story to tell your grandkids, I cannot recommend that you get in the waters here without a local guide who knows the moods of the tides and waves. It can be slippery, or even worse, the waves can carry you out of your chilled out bath and into the rough seas beyond. While up here check out Pohaku Kani, a bellstone with ancient ceremonious significance that today is nothing more than rock that sometimes makes a bell sound.
It’s impossible to miss Kakakuloa Head a volcanic rock that reaches high over the sea, and sight of the spectacular cliff diving escapades of ancients—don’t try it, it’s totally not safe. From your perch as you curve around a bend, you’ll spot Kakakuloa village below. This isolated town doesn’t offer services other than a few stands geared towards the tourists who traipse through town on the way to Wailuku. You’ll find a shave ice stand here, and Julia’s green shack hawking some of the finest banana bread in Hawai’i.
Beyond Kakakuloa at mile marker 14 is Kaukini Gallery, showcasing local artists—over 100 of them! At mile marker 10 is Turnbull Studios and Sculpture Garden, another lovely view into Maui’s impact on local artists. At mile marker 7 is Mendes Ranch, an outfitter willing to guide you and your clan on 2-hour horseback rides through the dense forest. If you’d prefer to do the walking, take the Waihe’e Ridge Trail, a five-mile journey through the trees, with views of the coast. To access the trail, from mile marker 7, travel mauka until you see the Na Ala Hele sign. Join native birds in exploring the trees that blanket the West Maui Mountains. After your hike, you’ll be deposited back into Wailuku.
For more itinerary planning and backroads throughout Hawaii, pick up a copy of my Backroads and Byways Hawaii.